Beneath the Planet of the Apes
by Barry Meyer
Talking simians, mute humans, telepathic mutants. What more could you ask for in a sequel? Some action, maybe?
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Beneath the Planet of the Apes starts out right where the Planet of the Apes leaves off. Literally. Taylor (Charlton Heston) and Nova (Linda Harrison) have discovered that, on the Ape Planet, Ape has evolved from Man. But even more disturbing, Taylor learns that the planet that he’s crash landed on is actually the planet Earth some 2000 years into the future. Damn! Now he’s doomed to endlessly wander this backwards world with his new mate (well, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing!).
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Forbidden Zone, another spaceship, on a search-and-rescue mission for the first ship, crashes into the desert. Brent (James Franciscus), the only surviving astronaut, is now abandoned on a strange planet. But, in one of the greatest coincidental strokes of luck ever placed in a film, Brent runs into Nova who just so happens to have Taylor’s dog tags around her neck. What a break! She’s mute, so she can’t clearly explain that Taylor has disappeared into some mirage-like wall of rocks, so she leads Brent to the Ape city to meet Zira (Kim Hunter reprising her role) and Cornelieus (David Watson took on the scientist chimp role that Roddy McDowall originated; McDowall returned for the remaining sequels, though). In Ape city, Brent has to rehash all the wide-eyed shock all over again, just as Taylor did when he first discovered the talking Apes.
Ape city is in now in the midst of upheaval. General Ursus (James Gregory) is set to invade the Forbidden Zone and use it as a means to plant needed crop. This causes great tensions and protesting amongst the Chimpanzees.
After they are discovered, Brent and Nova must escape the militant Apes. They find safe harbor in an underground cave that the Apes seem to be unaware of. To Brent’s amazement deep in the caves he has found himself in the very subway station that he visited as a boy in New York City. Further into the caves Brent and Nova stumble upon a lair of mutant humans who worship “the Bomb”, and who can control others with their mind-bending telepathic powers.
These mind-bending mutants turn out to be quite the sadistic little creeps. First they psych Brent into strangling Nova to within an inch of her life. Then they pit him against Taylor, whom they’ve held captive, in a one on one battle that is very reminiscent of the cat-fight between Capt. Kirk and Spock in one of the Star Trek episodes.
Meanwhile, while the mutant race of mind-warpers are playing games with the astronauts, the Apes have invaded their lair, and a deadly battle is played out between man and beast. The only way out of this mad house is for Taylor to trip the nuclear weapon, and destroy the backward planet of the Apes.
This is a classic example of one of those movies that they tell you to “stick with it.” The first half is pretty much a do-over of the first Ape movie, with Brent aping (sorry) Taylor’s surprise and shock at seeing the Apes speaking and stuff. But, once they get into the underground lair the action starts to pick up, although not so spectacularly.
If the only time I ever saw this movie was that time I watched it at the local drive-in when I was a kid, I’d probably say it was the best thing ever. If only that were the case. Like many sequels Beneath the Planet of the Apes simply had too much to live up to. The writer and director (Paul Dehn and Ted Post, consecutively) fair well in their efforts, but seemed to have taken the task a bit too seriously. Where the first Apes film worked on multi-levels with satire, action, and drama, the sequel side-steps the funny bone and aims right for the cerebral cortex. Not that there’s anything wrong with a cerebral science fiction movie. But this ain’t no 2001 A Space Odyssey, it’s an adventure movie. You need some fluff with the stuff.
The studio’s idea, with the first couple Ape films, was to comment on social issues relevant at the time, like race relations, class, and war. Where the first film dealt with all three, Beneath the Planet of the Apes makes an allegorical play of the Vietnam War, with the marooned astronaut, Brent, representing the American troops sent to battle the Viet Cong. Brent must abandon his normal course to land on am unfamiliar planet to rescue the survivors of a crashed space craft. With no indication of where or how, Brent sets out alone on his search. What he finds is an upside down world run by hostile beings. Comparatively, thousands of young American men were taken from their peaceful homes and packed off to a strange land in the midst of a volatile conflict. The reason why they are there is lost on them, they have little clue as to what their purpose is, other than to kill the enemy. They are not fighting for their homeland, or for their own country, they are simply fighting for their own lives. Fighting to get out alive.
That’s about as deep as if gets. There are also the psychic mutants that worship the bomb and barricade themselves from others that represent some kind of statement about the dehumanizing cold war. And the militant gorillas obviously represent the aggressive side of war, as opposed to the peace-loving chimps who protest them. Pretty simple stuff here. Beneath the Planet of the Apes has done little more than rehash the ideas and sentiment of the first film.
However, the real downfall of this film is the cinematography. Milton R. Krasner does very little to punch up the action, or help convey any of the fear and desperation, or desolation that the first film so successfully illustrated. The look of this film is tantamount to that of an ABC Movie of the Week. It’s surprising, seeing that Krasner has lensed nearly 150 films in his long life.
An interesting bit of trivia—Charlton Heston had originally opted not to reprise his role in this sequel to Planet of the Apes, believing that everything that had to be said was already said well enough in the first film. He changed his mind however, when the Twentieth Century Fox heads convinced him to do a small cameo (maybe they used their mutant mind-bending brain powers on him). The small cameo somehow turned into a large cameo. After disappearing early in the first part of the film, Heston returns and figures fairly prominently in the last half of the film. So prominently that he is given the honors of pressing the button that blows the Ape planet to bits. That Chuck! Just can’t keep his stinking paws off them damn dirty weapons.
We’d like to thank MovieProp for having the best resources on the ‘net for the Apes series.
Barry Meyer is a writer living in New Jersey. He’s worked in the film and television biz for the past 10 plus years.
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